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Language on the Fringe 5 –‘It’s All Irish To Him’ (Book Review)

This review article first appeared in: Skeptical Adversaria 1 (2009), 4-8

Reproduced with permission

Michael Tsarion is an ‘alternative historian’ and conspiracy theorist, one of the latest representatives of a fringe amateur tradition which holds that the accounts of ancient history presented by orthodox scholarship are utterly false, and that powerful covert forces which have long controlled the world further their own agendas by jealously guarding the true knowledge of the remote past which they possess and ensuring that this remains unknown to others. Orthodox scholars are either part of this conspiracy or dupes. Tsarion believes that anyone who examines their ideas honestly and intelligently will see that these ideas are so obviously riddled with bias and error that they can be rejected, and that he himself has unearthed the gist of the real truth despite the vast conspiracy to conceal it.

In Tsarion’s version of ancient history, Atlantis really existed as a primeval civilisation (contrary to all mainstream scholarship, but as in many other alternative accounts). He discusses this in a book which cannot be examined here. The source of later civilisation and culture, following the fall of Atlantis, was Ireland, with its ‘Druid’ religion. Tsarion is encouraged by his use of highly unreliable sources (see below) in adopting this implausible account of these matters and further bizarre reinterpretations of early history. These involve extreme claims too numerous to be dealt with here, eg the view that the Egyptian civilisation lasted 30,000 years.

Tsarion himself is Irish-born. The ascription of special status to a writer’s own background culture is common on the fringe and excites reasonable suspicion – although this alone does not, of course, show that he is mistaken, or even biased.

Part of Tsarion’s theory involves the Irish (Gaelic) language: he advances novel etymologies for very many words which involve an ultimate Irish origin. Naturally, those with other loyalties prefer other source languages (Aymara, Basque, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Korean, Latvian, Russian, Sanskrit, Turkish, the Finnish dialect of Swedish, etc). Typically, their cases are about as persuasive as Tsarion’s (ie not persuasive at all). And, as noted below, all but one of them must be wrong; very probably, all of them.

Tsarion cites as one of his authorities Maxwell, as in Maxwell, Tice & Snow 2000, reviewed by me in Newbrook 2007. Maxwell and his co-authors hold that there is a specifically linguistic conspiracy, part of a vast overall conspiracy also involving religion, which involves (a) keeping humanity divided by enforcing the use of many mutually unintelligible languages and (b) blocking humanity from discovering the original/‘true’ meanings of words. Tsarion also cites MacDari, who claims that the scriptures were originally written in Irish and that the Irish names were changed in order to conceal their source. Other fringe writers make similar claims, albeit differing on the real original language (see above). But, once one alleges significant deliberate manipulation of word-forms (without concrete evidence), as these writers do, all philological bets are obviously off. With deliberate manipulation, forms can alter in any way whatsoever, and almost any language can be seen as a source. For more examples of this and some discussion, see Newbrook 2005. (There is, of course, no good reason to believe that such massive linguistic manipulation has occurred on the scale proposed by most of these writers. Even if adequate motivation existed, the task would surely be infeasible, and there is no concrete evidence of its being even attempted.)

The linguistic element in Tsarion’s work is not as salient or as central as it is in eg Maxwell et al. 2000. Nevertheless, it does bulk large, and his book on the alleged Irish origins of civilisation contains many passages dealing with these novel etymologies and an extensive appendix presenting more examples.

The use of Maxwell and MacDari illustrates Tsarion’s tendency to regard earlier alternative thinkers, some of them highly fringe in nature, as authoritative. We return to this point later.

The etymological/historical linguistic research methods used by Maxwell, like those used by most alternative philologists, are the best part of 200 years out of date, and it can easily be shown that they are totally unreliable, which is why they have long been superseded in orthodox historical linguistic scholarship. (See below; for another account of this matter, see the early pages of Newbrook 2005.) When I first encountered Tsarion’s work, I suspected (rightly, as it emerged) that he too might have fallen into this basic error. The context was an oral report on a talk which he had given at a convention of alternative thinkers in Liverpool in 2008. I emailed him to ask exactly what he had said and had a somewhat testy interaction with him over the next two days, during which time I also read through extracts of his book which are available online, including the lengthy appendix on etymology.

Tsarion’s talk involved the alleged cognatehood (shared origin) of a series of superficially similar words and word-parts, drawn or derived from a range of related (Indo-European) languages but themselves currently deemed unconnected. Regarding these forms as cognates, he proposed that their meanings were originally the same. The forms in question were arya (a key term in Indic studies which has had a range of uses), area, terra (Latin for ‘earth’), the – aria in Bulgaria, Hera (Greek goddess-name), etc.

It became clear that Tsarion had not sought to defend his etymological claim about these forms as more soundly based than the orthodox etymologies for the forms (or, in some cases, the orthodox view that no plausible etymology can yet be advanced; see below). He told me: ‘I like it when my audiences start to observe terms and words and when they begin investigating the various meanings of them’. He had obviously merely invited the audience to accept his etymologies. Most of them, not being tutored in linguistics or the relevant languages, would have been unaware that these were more than controversial. Whatever the strength of Tsarion’s case as presented elsewhere, this approach is clearly unacceptably one-sided.

And in fact it rapidly emerged that Tsarion is not interested in actually arguing that his etymologies are to be preferred to orthodox etymologies. When I asked him ‘What is the evidence that ari/arya is cognate or has any other actual link with – aria, area, etc?’, he responded ‘Where’s the evidence that it doesn’t?’. (This is reminiscent of Ralph Ellis’ response to my similar query about his linking of the forms Deseret and desert : ‘Why can’t I say that they’re connected?’) I replied:

Re evidence for and against etymologies: There are millions of words and word-parts in thousands of languages; and there are only so many common sounds and sound combinations. Superficial similarity between words and/or word-parts taken from different languages, especially short ones, is in itself no evidence of a genuine connection, even if the meanings are similar. If the meanings are not especially similar, or are merely alleged to be related as part of someone’s theory, the case is even weaker.

The upshot of this is that – except where languages or groups of connected words are demonstrably related (‘genetically’ or through contact) and where the level of systematicity (see next para) is high the onus has to lie upon those who present novel etymologies or claims about cognatehood to show that there is at least a good case. – No-one can be obliged to present evidence that such forms are not connected, as you seem to suggest. Indeed, for recent times where hard evidence is plentiful, there are very many superficially similar forms, often with similar meanings and/or in related languages, which are nevertheless demonstrably unconnected and only accidentally similar.

In the course of 200 years of intensive study, linguists have learned much about the strength of evidence that is required to demonstrate (probable) connectedness between such forms. The main issue is that of systematicity; language change is very largely systematic. It is almost universally agreed that sets of unsystematically similar forms with similar meanings are not at all likely to be cognates, and there is certainly no reason to regard them as demonstrably cognate.

Anyone who wishes to overturn these points needs to develop arguments to the effect that the scholarly tradition of historical linguistics (with which I assume you are familiar) is mistaken in these respects. Any such project, informed by a good knowledge of the tradition, would obviously be of vast interest.

Another issue here involves known or very well-grounded established etymologies for words. Proposers of alternative etymologies need to argue that these are more plausible than the established ones.

(Re this last: In some cases, as intimated, the origins of words or word-parts are obscure and/or very remote in time and cannot be established, at least by current methods. Here, the problem with unsupported etymologies such as Tsarion’s is not that they are known to be false but rather that there is no good reason to believe that they are true.)

Tsarion now declared that he was not interested in convincing anyone of his case or in getting his work commonly known. These were my assumptions only and they were presumptuous and incorrect. As I pointed out to him, my assumptions were hardly presumptuous; his position is highly unusual and difficult to understand. Surely there is no point in the establishment of rival camps of thinkers, each of which assumes that they have already found the right general approach or the right outline answers and which therefore do not talk to each other or try to reach a conclusion or a synthesis. Skeptical linguists such as myself will therefore feel free to critique any alternative views which seem to warrant this, whether or not the writers in question welcome this attention or wish to defend their positions.

Tsarion admits that he himself is in no way an expert on linguistics. This is true of most alternative writers on language matters; they typically demonstrate only that they have very little if any knowledge of the subject and often that they are not even aware that it exists. But someone who presents new theories of language origins obviously should know a good deal about the subject, even if only to disagree with current ideas on a well-informed basis.

Tsarion did claim to have ‘dealt with’ many scholars of individual languages, also with senior etymologists and philologists, and to have read extensively on these subjects. But he never stated whether or not any of the thinkers he had consulted had come to endorse his views. And he began at this point a rant about the gross failings of orthodox scholarship (see above) which continued throughout the rest of our exchange and which made me wonder why he had paid any attention to the views of mainstream scholars! But in fact such writers often come to exhibit a curious tension between the rejection of hostile orthodoxy and a continuing desire to be embraced by scholarship; the latter is manifested in appeals to published academic writings at any point where these can – even if with distortion – be adduced in support of the ‘fringe’ claims. And, as will be seen, most of Tsarion’s sources are not in fact orthodox or genuinely authoritative in any case; they are earlier fringe sources which he chooses to regard as authoritative (for whatever reason).

Tsarion suggested that instead of attempting to critique people like himself I should spend my time within my ‘ivory tower establishment’ critiquing the mass of error and falsity therein. This comment is often made by alternative thinkers. I have in fact proved myself more than willing to examine problems in my own mainstream (see Newbrook 2000). But, at least in my own main area of expertise, it seems to me that for all its faults the mainstream tradition of scholarship has been much more fruitful (to the point of predicting linguistic forms later found in written form by archaeologists) and is much better grounded than any alternative tradition or proposal that I have ever seen. Naturally, for Tsarion I am a dupe or worse in thinking as I do.

Tsarion also sang the praises of alternative thinkers (obviously including those listed earlier whom he regards as authoritative sources and indeed as ‘masters’), wrongly stating that most intellectual progress has arisen from alternative work and describing its practitioners as much more modest and rational than orthodox scholars. In my view, while there certainly is some bombast and prejudice in the mainstream, the reverse of this latter view would be nearer the truth; few alternative thinkers are willing to consider that they might be wrong. Tsarion also apparently believes (obviously unreasonably) that alternative thought is validated merely by its long history and its breadth. In fact, alternative thought is itself so varied, in its ‘findings’ at any rate, that most of it must be wrong. In the field under discussion, for instance, any major loosening of the standards of evidence for cognatehood etc, such as most such sets of claims require, would have the consequence that very many alternative proposals (involving eg a whole range of different languages of origin) would be roughly equally plausible. But these proposals all contradict each other; only one of them, if any, could be correct. (In that event, the reasonable conclusion would probably be that we could not say much at all about philology or ancient etymologies with any confidence. Orthodox linguists would regard this conclusion as a last resort and as not warranted by the actual evidence.)

In addition, very few historical linguists feel ‘threatened by alternative researches’ as Tsarion suggests. Most of the alternative theories that come to their attention appear so weakly supported and so implausible that they scarcely warrant detailed examination, and they certainly do not inspire apprehension. Some linguists, notably Lass, have nevertheless devoted much time to honest appraisals of such material. And even within the ‘mainstream’ there are a few scholars with minority views that are very divergent. Ruhlen is an obvious example. For my own part, I would be delighted to find radical alternative conclusions or methods which I found persuasive. So far that has not happened, but I continue to look.

When one examines the relevant parts of Tsarion’s book as excerpted on his site, notably the appendix on etymology, it does indeed become clear that he has no intention of actually supporting his etymologies, or comparing the linguistic evidence supporting them (if any exists) with that supporting the established etymologies for the same items. Here is an example: parts of his account of the etymologies surrounding a Tarot card (his conventions retained):

Aton and the Fool

The Hebrew letter that corresponds to this card is Aleph. Aleph, from the Arabic Aleim and Irish Ailim , is the origin of the modern word Alive . The Irish Aleim gives our first letter of the alphabet “A.” It became the Hebrew Aleph and the Greek Alpha ….. Additionally, the term Elohim that derives from Aleim and Aleim can still be found in Jerus- alem ….. The word Fool is a corruption of the word Soel. The long letter “S” was often mistaken for “F.” Soel or Sol, means “the Sun.”

These statements about etymologies (often deriving forms in other languages from an ultimate Irish source) are unsupported. Many of them also fly in the face of well-established etymologies. The Hebrew letter-name aleph has an Arabic cognate alif (albeit attested only much later), and a similar form in the closely-related Semitic language Phoenician is demonstrably the source of Greek alpha . Irish is not involved; there is indeed no evidence that (very early) Gaelic was written (in letters or otherwise) at the date when these words were first used, and in fact the Gaelic of that date is reconstructed philologically, not actually attested. The English word alive is obviously related to live/life , which has a very clear Gernanic source; the a- is not part of the root, as Tsarion’s Irish etymology implies, but a prefix. The form elohim also has clear Semitic cognates and no known link with early Indo-European (including Gaelic). And the forms fool and (Latin) sol have known, quite separate, old etymologies; fool derives from a well-documented ‘slang’ use of the Latin word follis (‘bellows’) and cannot possibly have arisen by way of scribal error at the relatively recent time when the letters S and F were written similarly in Europe.

Similar items in Tsarion’s appendix include the following:

The word Hebrew did not relate to a particular race but to the wise ones or Elders known as the Ibaru or Ibri of Ireland, and later, of Egypt. The ancient name for the land of Ireland was Hibernia, and the ancient Irish were known as Hibernians . This is an Irish word and it also denoted those Gaelic tribes, descended from the ancient Irish, which temporarily inhabited Spain. Spain’s old name was Iberia.

PASTOR: Here is a word commonly used by persons in the Christian religion, in reference to someone with clerical duties. The word has two syllables, Pa and Stor . The first syllable is the root of the word for father, elder and great. The latter stands for Star. This is where we derive the word aster , and asteroid , meaning “star.”

Many place names contain the prefix or suffix EL (see Elstree, meaning EL’s Tree ). [! MN]

Bishop is one of the oldest words we have referring to those who knew the sky. Bishop comes from the word vishnu – god of the sea, god of the fish, and astrologically of Pisces – the sign of the fish, and of Christianity. Bishops wear the fish-headed headdress to commemorate their connection to Piscean symbolism. One of the earliest and most important Sumerian-Babylonian gods was Oannes, the Fish-God. It is from Oannes, or Joannes, that we derive certain personal names, such as John.

Etc, etc. Similar comments to the above could readily be made on all these examples. For instance, there is a very well-established Greek etymology for the form bishop, and Tsarion’s rival etymology receives no defence in linguistic terms at all.

Despite obviously knowing something of these matters, Tsarion also displays conceptual confusion over the use of terms such as Indo-European and Celtic , which are properly – and validly – used of linguistic (not racial/ethnic) groups.

The use of Maxwell and MacDari, as noted above, illustrates Tsarion’s tendency to regard earlier fringe thinkers as authoritative. Other fringe (and highly dated) sources which he takes seriously include the works of Comyns Beaumont, Godfrey Higgins, L. A. Waddell, etc – all thoroughly discredited. (Tsarion does list a few more reliable sources, though these are mainly concerned with mythology considered as such.) In his appendix on etymology, he refers frequently to these fringe sources. But he makes no use at all of mainstream or even near-mainstream work on the linguistic aspects of these matters, not even to criticise or dismiss it. I am not sure that he has actually read any such material.

The excerpts from Tsarion’s book quoted above are available online. Chapter 14 in Volume 1, not available online, deals with ‘The Lost Language of the Ancients’. Because the book is a) expensive and b) available only from Tsarion’s website and from a postal source in the USA, I have not seen this chapter. It is possible that Tsarion’s treatment of linguistic matters in this chapter is better, though given his overall display I strongly doubt this.

At no point in what I have seen does Tsarion explain what exactly he sees as ‘the egregious fallacies and errors, compromised teachings’, etc which according to him are typical of mainstream scholarship, in the specific field that is in question here, that of historical linguistics.

I welcome interest in linguistic matters from all comers, whatever their non-linguistic ideas and whatever their initial degree of expertise. And (pace Tsarion) I (like all fair-minded modernist mainstream linguists) do not decry novel historical linguistic theories merely because they are non-standard – whoever proposes them and whatever their apparent motivation. But, as in any learned discipline, advancing such theories is pointless if one does not first acquire (or gain access to) a reasonable degree of expertise – as noted, if only to disagree rationally with well-supported positions that one now understands. And, given the bizarre nature of Tsarion’s historical linguistic claims and most of all his failure to support them with argumentation or evidence (particularly linguistic argumentation or evidence), his own specific ideas on this front should obviously be disregarded as they stand. Anyone who appears inclined to accept them should be directed to this review.

References:

MacDari, C.  How The Bible Is An Irish Book Altered And Adapted By British-Roman Transcribers 

Maxwell, J., P. Tice & A. Snow 2000 That Old-Time Religion: The Story Of Religious Foundation. Escondito: The Book Tree

Newbrook, M. 2000 Skepticism on ‘fringe’ and ‘mainstream’. In: The Skeptic (Australia) 20:2 (2000), 24-29

Newbrook, M. 2005 Linguistic reconstruction and revisionist accounts of ancient history In: The Skeptical Intelligencer 7 (2005), 22-33

Newbrook, M. 2007 Old-time religion, old-time language. In Skeptical Inquirer 31:2 (2007), 58-63

Tsarion, M. ND The Irish Origins Of Civilization Excerpts available at: www.irishoriginsofcivilization.com

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